Private schools have long been a controversial subject in South Africa. Questions that frame the debate include whether they are outbidding the public sector for good teachers, helping to ease the burden on the public sector, or contributing to the overall national goal of reducing unemployment.

ON THE RISE: For parents, however, the goal is simply to provide their children the best education possible, and that has resulted in a proliferation of private schools catering not just to those who can afford the best in education, but to those with smaller budgets, as well. With South Africa struggling to show results in the education sector, more and more people are spending whatever disposable income they have on private schools – many of them affordable, in part, because they have not registered with the authorities.

It is commonly held, however, that the owners of these schools are preying on parents and not delivering what they promise. A 2010 report provided a different take, suggesting many of them are simply operating as rational actors in a capitalist society: finding an underserved niche and providing a high-quality service because competition demands they must in order to thrive.

The report was authored by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a free-market-oriented think tank, and the message filtered its way through education circles in 2011. While it is not the only source that blames public-sector inefficiencies for the problems in education, the report has helped increase the focus on the inherent differences between public and private offerings in the country, and served as a reminder of the government’s struggles to fully understand the issues facing education and how to deal with it.

MIXED FINDINGS: The CDE surveyed schools in six areas of the country across a range of socio-economic classes and in urban to rural settings. While the official statistics show that roughly 4.3% of schools were low-fee private schools in 2008, the CDE found they comprised 30% of the total in these six areas, highlighting the fact that government data on education may be incomplete. Low-fee schools are defined as those charging less than R635 ($77.72) per month during the 10-month school year. Middle-fee school cost between R636 ($77.85) and R1825 ($223.38). Roughly a quarter of these schools were unregistered, but in many cases the CDE found the reason was not a desire to avoid scrutiny or standards but instead because of bureaucratic delays, or demands that simply cannot be met in some of the poorer areas of the country.

The survey found 117 private schools in locations officially deemed unsuitable, such as abandoned factories or rural shacks, and in some areas there were more private than public schools. Others stay unregistered because of regulations designed to prohibit competition with public schools, such as those in Eastern Cape province that stipulate there must be unmet demand in an area before a private school can open.

POSITIVE RESULTS: The CDE measured performance of private schools with a test it designed and administered to students, and found that the results of most private school students were equal to those of students receiving education in public schools. Their results were up to 12% higher in some cases, with some of the unregulated private schools showing the most pronounced achievement. The CDE attribute this to the fact that because unregistered private schools are not entitled to subsidies from the state, they are even more reliant on having a competitive edge for their revenue. In short, the picture painted by the CDE report is one of a vibrant private sector.

This trend of low-fee and reasonable-quality private schools is not unique to South Africa. The CDE cites the research of James Tooley, a professor of education policy at Newcastle University who has found similar phenomenon elsewhere and heads ventures creating low-cost private schools in developing countries, including Ghana and India. With research on the emergence of private schools in South Africa still in its infancy, the government is continuing to explore the impact this segment can have on enhancing the education system.